SXSW Interview: Actor Pat Healy Talks 'Magnolia,' 'Compliance,' and 'Cheap Thrills'

A Chicago native and alum of the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company at Illinois State University, Pat Healy has been a familiar face in many an indie film over the past decade and a half, only to recently take on larger roles in the acclaimed "Compliance" and SXSW 2013 selection "Cheap Thrills," which was just acquired by Drafthouse Films. Healy spoke with us about his career experience working with directors ranging from David Gordon Green to Werner Herzog, from Paul Thomas Anderson to Michael Bay.

William Goss: So, should we even talk about “Home Alone 3”?

Pat Healy: I was just talking to a friend about it the other day. There’s a lot of milestones with that film. They made a mistake with the call sheets. I was on a day rate, and I would either be on hold or they would release me, which means you don’t get paid. So I had to shoot two or three days, and then a month later, they would need me for a week. But somebody forgot about me -- I think I have one line in the movie, I’m behind the guy who has all the lines -- so for five weeks, they kept me on a daily rate and I just didn’t tell anybody... (laughs)

In a practical sense, as a working actor, I made a lot of money off that, which helped me move to L.A. And since it’s a kids’ movie, those things really sell, and if I wanted to live very modestly, I could have lived off the residuals from that for a long time, which seems totally ridiculous ... Scarlett Johansson was on the movie, she was 11 years old. I ended up working with her again when she was 15 when we shot “Ghost World,” and then one more time on “The Island,” which I was cut out of ... I have nieces and nephews, and there’s really nothing else I’ve done besides that that they can watch. (laughs)

WG: How did you end up with the role(s) you have in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia”?

PH: I was a huge fan of “Boogie Nights,” probably saw it three or four times in the theater. I moved to L.A. about six months after that came out, and it was announced in the trades that he was doing a new film and Tom Cruise was going to be in it. So I got a call out of the blue from my agent, asking if I’d like to go and audition for that. I was gonna go out of town, to visit my brother in New York, and I cancelled that trip to meet with the casting director, Cassandra Kulukundis... I got the pages for the pharmacy scene, but none of the other pages of the script or what the movie was about... She and I just ended up talking for a long time, not about the movie or anything, and then after about an hour, she said, “Do you want to try the scene?” and I said, “Sure.”

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She read it with me, but didn’t turn the camera on or anything, which I thought was kind of odd. Then she asked me to hold on a second, and she went and came back with Paul. And I was just really excited to meet him. At that time, we were both in our twenties, we were both just super excited movie geeks. I read the scene with him there, and he gave me a few notes and then said, “Alright, you wanna come do this? It’s gonna be fun, it’s you and Julianne Moore, you’re gonna do this thing.” That never happens in the room, so I said, “Of course!”

We shot that scene, it was great fun, then we had this party halfway through the shoot, and then Paul said, “Hey, I think I’ve got another one for you.” I thought he was offering a part in another movie, but it was that other scene at the beginning of the movie. I’ve still never asked him if he had intended all along to have me be the pharmacist there, or if he came up with it as he was doing it ... That’s one people always ask me about.

WG: What was it like working with Michael Bay on “Pearl Harbor” and, as you said, “The Island” after that?

PH: Well, it’s no secret what kind of guy he is. (laughs) He is a screamer, he is a really intense guy ... everything you’ve heard is true, but I do have an admiration and a respect for the guy, regardless of what you think of his work. Sometimes I like his films, and sometimes I don’t. He is certainly an auteur. There’s no mistaking that that’s a Michael Bay movie. But he put me through the paces ... I have to tell you, though - he cut me out of [“The Island”]? His only failure.

WG: What about “Rescue Dawn”?

PH: I did “Great World of Sound” that summer in Charlotte, NC, and I came back for a weekend, and my manager had set up this audition for me. “Oh, it’s this action movie, ‘Rescue Dawn’.” Then he gives me the appointment sheet and it says, “Writer/Director: Werner Herzog.” Needless to say, that guy is no longer my manager. I went in, I read with Herzog... and to be in the room with the man who made [“Stroszek”] was extraordinary. I didn’t have many lines, and I don’t think I have any lines in the movie as it stands now, but it was just great...

There was a scene one day on an aircraft carrier, towards the end of the movie, where they rescue Christian Bale and bring him back. At the end of the day, he [Herzog] got on the stage with Christian and said, “Thank you all for coming. This was very important to me, this was my friend’s story. This is Christian Bale, he was Batman. Thank you for coming.” And then he sets down his megaphone, runs off down the gangplank, and he stood on the gangplank and shook the hand of every single extra who was there, about 300 guys. He didn’t leave until they all left, and if any wanted to talk to him, he’d talk to them. That’s just the kind of guy that he is ... He didn’t make the actors do anything that he wasn’t willing to do himself. He would be in there with us; he held the camera, he wiped the sweat off our brows, he worked the clapper board. And it was a bigger movie for him, so he didn’t have to be doing all that stuff, but he wanted to do it and he just makes you want to do everything for him, and I would have anyway.

And at the end of the shoot, I got to tell him that, when I was 16, I saw “Strozsek” and that really changed my life, it was important to me. He got misty-eyed and gave me a big hug. For a cinephile, I don’t think there’s anything better than that. Even if I didn’t get to do that much on that movie, just for that moment, as a fan, that was incredible.

WG: How did you wind up in David Gordon Green’s “Undertow” and “Snow Angels”?

PH: My brother, Jim, is two years older than me, and when we were kids, we saw everything together. Now, we’re both doing what we wanted to do with our lives. He ran the archive at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, he programmed the theater there for about a decade, and now he runs the Cinematheque at UW-Madison. He always wanted to watch movies and show them, and I wanted to make them. But he was working at the Chicago Film Festival in 2000 and they sent him to Berlin, where he saw “George Washington” at its premiere and met David and Craig Zobel and Danny McBride and Paul Schneider, all those guys that were there behind the film.

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Then my brother came out to L.A. and he introduced me to David that spring. He’s another movie nerd, too, so we became really close friends, and we were really good friends for many years. So when David did “Undertow,” he asked me to do a part in that, and that’s where I met Craig. We actually went to show “Undertow” at the George Eastman House, where my brother was, and David said to me, “Craig has written this great script...” You know, David’s been better to me than any agent I’ve ever had. He’s always saying, “You’d be good for this, you’d be good for that, I know the person, I’ll tell them.” So he said, “Craig wrote this script and I’m gonna recommend that he hire you,” and I got on the phone with Craig. We only knew each other a little bit on “Undertow,” but I wasn’t there that long. Then he sent me the script [“Great World of Sound”] and I loved it, I related to it. I didn’t know at the time that he had actually had a bigger name who wanted to do the movie, but he decided to go with me instead, which I found out later. It could have helped his movie more, but he didn’t do that, and I’ll always love both of these guys, David and Craig.

I’ll tell you an amazing story about David. I did “Great World of Sound,” and after that, I went right to Thailand and did “Rescue Dawn.” When I was in Thailand, right before we went off to the middle of the jungle, David said, “Hey, they can’t cast the second lead for the “Jesse James” movie. They offered it to Sam Rockwell, and he turned it down. Then they had this actor who’s in the movie, Garret Dillahunt, who wanted to play that part. And Garret got this pilot where he played Jesus. Aidan Quinn was like a priest, and Jesus would come talk to him? It was like “Play It Again, Sam” with Jesus, and they wouldn’t let him out of his contract for the part. Sam had said no for whatever reason, so...

This was 2005, I barely had internet, and I couldn’t get the scenes back or anything. David read the scenes to me over the phone, and I wrote them down in a notebook, and then we went off to the jungle. We were staying in these Army barracks, I think. Christian Bale had a video camera, which he let me use, and the gaffer lit it for me, one of the other actors read with me, so we shot it... And then I was on the phone, in the middle of the f**king jungle, trying to learn how to compress this video with some guy from Warner Bros. I knocked on the door of an Internet cafe where a woman was asleep on a cot with her dog at, like, 6 in the morning. Tried to get it there, couldn’t get there, finally got it there -- all stuff that we know how to do now easily, but at the time, in the middle of Thailand, was not easy to do.

Then I remember, I’m on the phone at 5 in the morning with Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik, saying they got the tape and really liked it and everything. So I hurried back home, and it was weird. There was a USA Today on the plane talking about how Angelina had just gone public with their relationship and how’d they’d just gone up there to Calgary. So I got back, and they said, “We want to see you,” so, crazy jet-lagged, I went from Thailand to Canada the next day and read with Andrew and some of the producers, then the next day, read again with Casey Affleck. It seemed like it was a done deal, but Brad was not there that day. Brad had gone to New York to see Angelina, who was doing “The Good Shepherd.” And I guess while he was there, he went to Sam Rockwell’s house and said, “Come and do this movie.” So while I’m doing all this, Sam said he would do it. I didn’t end up getting the part, but Andrew ended up taking two parts and combined them to give me a little more to do.

But David Green had been calling me. This was August of 2005, David was living in New Orleans. He was fleeing Hurricane Katrina, and he kept calling every hour to find out if I got the part or not. Leaving his home behind, everything he owned, and that’s all he cared about that day. I’ll never forget that... It ended up being really important to my career and my life. I don’t think I would have gotten most of the opportunities that I’ve had without him.

WG: In terms of then working with Craig, what was it like not just taking on lead roles in “Great World” and “Compliance,” but contending with this sort of moral ambiguity?

PH: Craig and I are very similar people, and we have our differences, sure, but we think about things in a really insane way, and I feel like that part in “Great World of Sound” is an extension of him in some ways. His stuff is very personal. And in that film, I thought that that guy thought he was a good salesman, you know? I think he always felt that he was doing things for the right reason. Even when he does something that’s just morally reprehensible, I believe that he thinks that “I’ll just do this now, and I’ll be able to fix it later.” It sort of pre-dates what happened in this country, we were writing checks that we couldn’t cash...

With “Compliance,” there was no ambiguity for me. That guy was just repugnant, and that was difficult because they always say that, as an actor, you have to like the people that you play, and it was the first time I was really confronted with something where I couldn’t relate to that. I could come up with reasons why, and I could put myself in that guy’s shoes, but I felt the worse for it. Unfortunately, I was going through a really hard time personally, but it was good for the movie because I just put a lot of that anger and pain into it, which is not something that I always do. I don’t think there’s any one way to act. Whatever works, works...

One thing I certainly related to was that, the person who could do that -- it’s like those people on Twitter who say s**t to you that they would never say in a million years to your face. As a person who does that, they’re not only a coward, but there’s a deep, deep self-loathing that goes on that would make someone turn it out against someone else rather than turn it in against themselves. So that’s just how I decided to approach it, whether consciously or unconsciously, and then I could get away with saying, “I don’t like this guy and he doesn’t like himself.”

We did all the calls live, and shot what I was doing and what they were doing simultaneously. But when the phone broke, I had to go and read the lines off-camera, and it made me sick to my stomach, because I didn’t want to look at those people and say those things. I love those people. So I could understand why this guy did these things from a distance, at a remove. In his mind, he’s not committing a crime or causing a rape to take place, he’s a Jerky Boy. Craig and I always talked about the fact that the stakes were really low for him. The worst thing that could happen was that he got hung up on, because he’s not seeing any of it. I had a psychiatrist friend of mine say, “I didn’t understand why you got anxious when the phone card was running out, because psychopaths don’t get anxious,” and I said, “What makes you think he’s a psychopath?” I don’t think he is. I think that’s probably the more terrifying thing about it... I think he’s not a person who would do any of that, and if he saw any of it, he’d never do it again. Interestingly enough, the person who was arrested for this crime and put on trial was acquitted, but after happening 70 times over a decade, it never happened again. Take of that what you will.

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WG: When did you realize that you’d be reuniting with Sara Paxton, your co-star in "The Innkeepers," on “Cheap Thrills”?

PH: Last summer, I met Evan Katz and Travis Stevens. I didn’t know either of them, but we had mutual friends. They sent the script to my manager while I was on vacation in Big Bear, and they wanted me to come in and read. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t do any work, I didn’t bring my computer, I was just not going to be doing any work on anything. It wasn’t playing hard-to-get, I had just made this promise to myself, and I guess they thought I was saying that I wouldn’t read for it. So I said that I’d meet up with them once I got back that Friday... That Thursday night, I read the script, and it’s really good. So I met with them, had coffee, we talked. I said, “I really liked the part,” and they said, “Well, some big name actor has an offer” and they wanted to know if I’d like the other part played by Dave Koechner. I was a little disappointed, but I said sure. It was still a good part, and not really something I’d ever done before, but then, for a couple of months, it just wasn’t coming together for whatever reason...

Then “Compliance” came out, it played in one theater in NYC, and it had a great number for the weekend, and obviously, the reviews were great. So they offered it to me. They had the other two parts locked up, but not the female part. It can be read as kind of a thankless role. It’s a pretty male-driven movie, so I can see why other actresses had said no. I believe Sara said no. I was texting Travis and I said, “Who are you getting for the girl?” He said, “We have an offer out to this great actress, Sara Paxton. Do you know her?” I thought he was kidding. He’s like, “Ohhhhhh, I forgot.” I guess they liked me because of “Great World of Sound,” and “The Innkeepers” wasn’t on their mind. So I said I’d call her, and I encouraged her to read it and maybe she didn’t read the whole thing before, but then she said she’d do it. That was really nice of her to do, I was really happy to have her there and she’s great in the movie. There’s also a part of my ego that feels like, “Aw, she’s doing this movie because of me.” I know that’s not totally true, but I think that it’s nice that she wanted to work with me again. And we had to do some really uncomfortable things in the movie, some really uncomfortable things together, and I think it was a lot easier because we’re friends to do that stuff... We do stuff together in the movie that would be uncomfortable for any actor.

WG: How do you feel about the specific distinction of being a “character actor”?

PH: I don’t think about it too much. Especially as a young man, I think that it can be a ... You don’t want that, every young actor wants to be James Dean or Marlon Brando or whatever. You want to be sexy, and I don’t remember who it was that said it, but one of the famous character actors said that “‘Character actor’ is code for ‘actor nobody wants to f**k.’” It’s interesting to me that there was an era in the ‘70s when these character actors, like Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, became leading men because they were great actors who could carry films. We’ve seen that recently with Philip Seymour Hoffman and people like that. So I don’t mind it now that I’m older. I fought it for a long time, just like I fought playing creepy characters, you can’t take that personally. You think, “I’m not creepy, I don’t want to do that, but I happen to be good at it.”

Lately, my career as a writer took off, so I was no longer going on and auditioning for work, and the films I was doing, it wasn’t necessarily dependent on whether or not I was getting paid for it. But they were bigger roles and I got to show what I could do, and I accepted my place as a character actor, and once I did that, I began getting leading man roles. (laughs) Once I committed to doing things the way I wanted to, and did things for the right reasons, not for money or career advancement, I’ve made the most money and had the most career advancement in my life. Both my acting career and my writing career are better than they’ve ever been, and my quality of life, too.

"Cheap Thrills" screens tomorrow night at SXSW.

This interview has been reluctantly edited for length.